Losing someone close, like a parent, sibling, relative or friend, during childhood or adolescence can be traumatic and devastating. Generally, sudden and unexpected traumatic bereavements due to natural disasters are often difficult to recover from due to their complicated and stressful nature. They induce additional trauma like facing life-threatening situations, which can also interfere with the usual grief process: accepting the reality of the loss, processing the pain, adjusting to the new environment without the deceased and relocating the loss from one’s life.
Children and adolescents, unlike adults, have not developed emotional and social maturity to fully incorporate the loss, trauma and grief processes. Such losses can destabilize critical development issues and future lives. Additionally, children and adolescents are still dependent on their parents and a loss can result in socioeconomic problems and posttraumatic stress. While early prevention support programs can assist grieving adolescents and children, professionals dealing with these programs need to possess in-depth knowledge about early intervention and development, considering the relationship between the children and the deceased and how the loss could impact their lives.
The 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami affected different countries, with Indonesia, Thailand, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka sustaining massive damages. The tsunami was estimated to have killed over 225,000 people, including citizens and non-citizens of the affected counties. Many Swedish people and families were on holiday in Southeast Asia during the tsunami. About 543 Swedish died while survivors were safely evacuated back home. The tsunami survivors have become rich-information sources for researchers studying how people are impacted by the loss of loved ones.
Herein, Professor Doris Nilsson from Linköping University together with Dr. Petra Adebäck and Dr. Lena Lundh from Karolinska Institutet studied the long-term effects of the sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one during childhood or adolescence, eight- to nine-years post-disaster, in young adulthood. The authors also explored how young adults handle traumatic loss during childhood or adolescence. A combination of various techniques comprising interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) and statistical analyses of 210 participants was used to explore the phenomena at different levels. Their research work is currently published in the journal, Brain and Behavior.
In their approach, children and adolescents aged 10 – 15 during the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami were selected for this study because they have a clear memory of the events and can clearly express their thoughts. Several exposures were considered: those who were physically present on the beach or in the water, saw the wave, experienced a threat to their lives or the lives of their loved ones, separated from parents during the tsunami and lost loved ones. The participants were divided into four exposure groups, with group four experiencing all these exposures while groups one to three experienced one, two or three of these exposures.
The authors reported significant differences between those who lost someone (bereaved) and those who did not lose someone (nonbereaved) concerning psychological distress, self-rated health and posttraumatic stress symptoms. The bereaved young adults reported significantly higher scores for all these factors than the nonbereaved. Three themes were derived from the IPA results: carrying heavy baggage, living in traumas and living with change. Most importantly, the respondents experience personal feelings of grief that are not obviously expressed in their behavior or outward appearances in their daily lives. It is important to consider this when interacting with young adults who have lost loved ones in childhood or adolescence.
In summary, the study established that the participants were still affected by the traumatic loss even eight- to nine-years post-traumatic disaster. Despite the difficulties, the respondents seemed to have undergone the grief process with a sense of positive feelings despite the trauma. As sea levels rise due to climate change, so do the global hazards and potential devastating damages from tsunamis. In a statement to Medicine Innovates, the authors explained their findings would contribute to developing early prevention support programs to help young adults cope with the loss of loved ones under traumatic circumstances during their childhood or adolescence.
Adebäck, P., Lundh, L., & Nilsson, D. (2022). Children or adolescents who lost someone close during the Southeast Asia tsunami 2004 – The life as young. Brain and Behavior, 12(5), e2563.